The baseball immortality of Beaver County's James Madison Toy
James Madison Toy was an average, 19th century major league baseball player — and average might be generous.
In two unremarkable seasons, he batted .211. He finished his career with one home run. And he played on awful teams, which combined to win 65 games and lose 165.
When he died in 1919, the newspapers did not pay special attention.
Yet, Toy managed to achieve something few ballplayers do: baseball immortality.
Not because he was the first Beaver Countian to play in the big leagues, though he was. Not because he suffered a particularly gruesome career-ending injury, which he did.
Rather, Toy achieved baseball immortality — more than four decades after his death — because of a distant relative's baseless and apparently false claim about his heritage and a well-respected baseball historian's failure to investigate that claim.
"I'm not sure where it got started, but there were parts of the family that insisted he was part Sioux Indian," said Toy's great-great-nephew, Jim Toy, 57, of West Mayfield, Beaver County. "No one had any documentation to prove it.
"My dad always kind of questioned the claim."
Others did not.
And so James Madison Toy, an average, white major league baseball player from Beaver County, became known, incorrectly, as the first Native American to play in the big leagues.
That didn't sit well with some.
James Madison Toy's pro baseball career began in 1884 in the short-lived Iron and Oil Association, a minor league that included teams from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio. His New Brighton team disbanded before the season ended, and the league went under a few days after.
Over the next two seasons, Toy played for three minor league teams in New York and one in Georgia.
In 1887, Toy got his big break. He landed a spot on the newly created Cleveland Blues in the American Association, then a major league. In announcing the signing, Sporting Life described the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Toy as "a tall, athletic young fellow, a splendid back-stop and very fine thrower."
He batted .222 in 109 games and slugged one of the team's 14 home runs. The numbers weren't eye-popping, but it was the dead-ball era.
The Blues were awful. They won just 39 of their 131 games and finished last in the American Association. After the season, owners let go of 16 of the team's 25 players, including Toy. He spent the next two years toiling in the minor leagues for the Rochester (N.Y.) Jingoes.
Toy returned to the majors in 1890 with the American Association's Brooklyn Gladiators. They were even worse than the 1887 Blues. The Gladiators won 26 of 99 games and folded before the season ended. Toy batted .181 and suffered a career-ending injury when a baseball struck him in the groin.
The injury pained Toy for the rest of his life, according to his great-great-nephew from West Mayfield.
Toy returned to Beaver County and took up work as a stove molder for the former Howard Stove Co. The 1900 Census showed him living in Beaver Falls with his wife of 14 years, Ida, and their three children: Pearl, 13; Gertrude, 12; and George, 10.
Toy died in Cresson Sanatorium, where tuberculosis patients were treated, in 1919. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Beaver, family members said.
'First of the natives'
In 1963, an ambitious project by baseball historian Lee Allen to obtain biographical information about every major leaguer who played brought more notoriety to the late Toy than he enjoyed in life.
"There have been approximately 10,000 players and we have heard from 4,198. We would be most proud to have a record of Mr. Toy and anything you can do to aid us will be greatly appreciated," Allen, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's chief historian, wrote in a letter to Hannah Toy of Beaver Falls.
Copies of letters exchanged between Allen and Toy's relatives are included in a file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame's archives.
James M. Toy, Hannah Toy's son, filled out the questionnaire. On a line asking for the player's nationality, Toy typed: "SIOUX INDIAN."
Allen replied immediately, writing: "I think he must have been the first Indian in major-league history, which gives him another distinction. There were quite a few after him, but none before that I know of, and I have questionnaires now from 4,321 players."
Allen went public with the claim in his Sporting News column, "Cooperstown Corner."
"It has often been printed that the first American Indian to appear in the majors was Louis Sockalexis, that folk hero out of the Penobscot country of Maine," Allen wrote in the 1963 column. "But now it develops that Sockalexis was not the first of the natives, that the honor should go to James Madison Toy of Beaver Falls, Pa."
It's unknown what, if any, independent research he did to try to confirm the claim.
Allen died in 1969.
Journalist and author Ed Rice spent decades disputing the claim, starting in the 1980s as he began researching Louis Sockalexis for a biography on the Penobscot legend.
"What Lee Allen was trying to do was laudable," said Rice, 69, of New Brunswick, Canada. "But to strip Sockalexis of being recognized as the first American Indian to play major league baseball, that was an injustice."
Rice, who formerly lived in Maine where the Penobscot Nation is based, contends that Toy didn't deserve the distinction — even if he was Native American — because he was not listed in a Census as an Indian or registered with a tribe. Furthermore, there are no accounts identifying Toy as being an American Indian or being identified by others as such. Rice applies the same criteria to other players whose names emerged as being the first American Indian to play in the majors.
But Rice reserves particular disdain for Toy, who never claimed to be Native American during his lifetime. In a 2015 op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, Rice refers to Toy as an "imposter."
Rice was so determined to prove Toy wasn't Native American that, in 2006, he said he lied to Cambria County officials in an attempt to obtain a copy of Toy's death certificate. He told them over the phone that he was a family member, and they mailed it.
The certificate listed Toy's race as white.
Rice has urged Cooperstown to weigh in on the debate. But its library director, James L. Gates Jr., told the Tribune-Review: "The Hall of Fame is not a sanctioning body for ethnic backgrounds. (Lee Allen) was writing for himself when he made that claim. We don't stipulate anybody as being the first in terms of ethnic background."
Genealogical research and DNA analysis appears to show that Toy wasn't Native American.
While numerous accounts suggest that the ballplayer's father was a Sioux Indian, records stored at the Beaver County Genealogy and History Center list the ballplayer's parents as James and Caroline (Caler) Toy. Toy's father was the son of Henry and Mary Toy, both of whom were born in Ireland.
And results of a DNA test added recently to Toy's file in Cooperstown show that the ancestral composition of another one of Toy's relatives, James Woods, who couldn't be reached, amounted to 0.0 percent Native American. Woods' great-great-grandfather John Wesley Toy was the ballplayer's brother.
Woods said in an email accompanying the DNA results that he took the test "not to discredit any family lore, but to accurately document my family history."
West Mayfield's Jim Toy, the ballplayer's great-great-nephew, can't believe the issue has generated as much debate as it has. While family members respected the significance of James Madison Toy's distinction, questions about its authenticity weighed on some of them.
"My grandmother (Hannah Toy) and her sister Kate insisted that Caroline Caler married an Indian," Jim Toy said. "They knew James Madison Toy when he was alive, and they were very adamant about it. My father (who filled out the questionnaire in 1963 and died in 2014) felt like, who was he to say yes or no? He didn't have proof one way or another.
"My dad was more interested in the fact that James Madison Toy played baseball."
A relative of Sockalexis, who began his career in 1897 with the Cleveland Spiders, didn't appear to be concerned with the debate.
"We've always thought that Louis Sockalexis was the first," Chris Sockalexis, chief historic preservation officer for the Penobscot Nation, said of his distant relative. "I think he set the standard for all minorities in the game."
He added: "This is the first time I've ever heard of Jim Toy."
Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.